We’ve heard the expression used countless times: more Catholic than the pope. I’ve known many people who, in their own minds, might fit this description. Some in a spirit of pomposity, others who simply radiate their faith in a spirit of good will. In the post-Conciliar Church, however, there has undeniably existed a rift between various “factions” within Catholicism, which to this very day remains abundantly evident. These differing sides are passionate about their visions for how the Church should look and what direction it should be heading in.
I don’t believe such debate is unhealthy–that is, until it becomes too zealous and unwelcoming of the views of others. The politicization of Catholicism, especially in the American Church has become something of a caricature of itself. As an aside, politically charged “theology” has always existed within the Church and I use quotations because it is not actually theology, rather it is better described as editorializing under the guise of theology. But our modern day infighting has become something dangerous, given the instant nature of communication via social media. Pope (Saint) John XXIII undoubtedly ruffled some feathers at the dawn of Vatican II, creating a panic among many of the more “conservative” members of the hierarchy with his vision for the future of the Church. But this happened gradually over a number of years. Today, when Pope Francis says something “revolutionary,” it is disseminated globally within minutes and the backlash is usually instantaneous.
Of course, nothing that he is saying or doing is revolutionary in terms of being subversive or doctrine-altering. He is only asserting and reasserting universal truths within the Church that have always existed, but have frequently been cast aside in lieu of less-than-noble pursuits. But our 24/7 news cycle and the overwhelmingly (and alarmingly) sensationalist journalists who comprise the modern media frequently try to spin the words Pope Francis says in order to create “Breaking News” or to further their own biased agenda. This only serves to fuel the fires of the extreme fringes within the Church who tend to allow their political affiliations to influence and often take precedence over their faith.
The ebb and flow of the structure of authority within the hierarchy of the Church has been noticeable since the Papacy of John XXIII. John hoped to decentralize what had long been a monarchical power structure; we then saw a massive recentralization of authority under John Paul II; no doubt Benedict XVI continued that policy. Francis, in a nod to the vision of John XXIII, has quickly sought to undo much of that centralization, seeking instead to air out the dirty laundry that had for so long been swept under the rug. Francis has embraced the true vision of Vatican II, seeking to make the Church a more friendly and inviting Church for the Body of Christ, i.e. the very people who are the Church. He has astutely recognized that a Church that ignores the people while allowing for rampant clericalism to rule the day will quickly become an irrelevant entity.
All Catholics have an obligation to recognize that the Church is comprised of many different people from many different backgrounds and all are welcome. To stifle the natural human spirit of creativity within the Church (rather than embracing and encouraging it) in an attempt to enforce a baseless rigidity will almost definitely render the Church obsolete.